Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Serving up beers outside Bootlegger in East Village.
The dreaded Purple Tier was back. This would be the final weekend before the most severe social distancing rules would again suspend indoor operations at restaurants and bars on November 14, potentially shutting down countless local happy hour specials. I hit the phones thinking I was simply building a database of drink specials still being offered despite the pandemic. Instead, I got a virtual tour of a bar-business battlefield.
Photo illustration by Jay Allen Sanford
We went into 2020 with over 400 happy hour specials listed on SanDiegoReader.com. You can imagine how much work it requires to call hundreds of venues and confirm up-to-the-minute data. It used to be an all-week gig, completed top-to-bottom four times each year, and I’d come out of those phone sessions with a voice husky enough to pull a dog sled. Not so much from talking to that many people, over a short period, but from having to talk so loudly. Any place with a successful happy hour is going to be noisy most any time you call.
Before the pandemic, I had to pose happy hour queries over the phone at a volume usually only heard from ex-spouses, heavy metal singers, and hyperactive children. I was often forced to repeat each question multiple times, getting exponentially louder with each query. That didn’t happen this last time. My home office was so whisper quiet, you’d have thought I was phoning to offer condolences regarding deceased loved ones. In a sense, I was.
When the first pandemic shutdown happened, we had to cut the 400-item happy hour database back to around 140 specials. Those were a lot of grim phone calls. It got to the point where I was almost relieved to reach a disconnected line instead of having to pester someone else about saving a couple of bucks on drinks amidst the potential loss of their livelihood.
The happy hour tally was slowly starting to rise again before the restrictions were reinstated in San Diego, which left around 79 confirmed specials. The weekend of November 14, as our city prepared to slink back into the purple penalty box, ended with only 52 active happy hours.
In University Heights, Small Bar & Grill was still reeling from a week’s closure due to an employee testing positive for Covid-19 when the newest restrictions were announced. The bar, which has been in business a little over a decade, confirmed on November 12 that it would be closing.
In University Heights, Small Bar & Grill was still reeling from a week’s closure due to an employee testing positive for covid-19 when the newest restrictions were announced. The bar, which has been in business a little over a decade, confirmed on November 12 that it would be closing.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Phil’s BBQ is managing to keep several of its locales open, though the San Marcos branch announced on November 13 that it was shutting down. “I feel like the prudent thing to do is to step away and look for other opportunities in the North County area,” said owner Phil Pace on Facebook (where he admitted that locale’s lease is almost up).
Winstons in OB announced its impending closure, perhaps for good, just before the purple axe fell, and nearby Mother’s had already been shuttered. Martinis Above Fourth in Hillcrest is now closed and reportedly seeking Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
North Park’s Bar Pink tried but failed to hang in there with cocktails-to-go and concert livestreams staged in the mostly empty venue. That tack seems to work moderately well for the Belly Up in Solana Beach, which offers homebound patrons a whole selection of previously archived livestreams. Nearby Tiger! Tiger! didn’t quite make its ten year anniversary before shutting down.
Knotty Barrel downtown is one of the few bars whose discount specials have remained mostly unchanged for over a year, running Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 pm.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Other venues that recently suspended their drink specials or appear to be shortening their hours or closing, at least temporarily, include Encinitas Ale House, Tin Roof, Pacific Beach Shore Club, Wonderland Ocean Pub, and Guava Beach Bar & Grill.
Many bars which previously offered happy hour specials several nights each week have cut back to only a single day, usually their slowest, such as the Local Pacific Beach, where the sole discount is on Monday (half off appetizers). The Old Town Mexican Café gets happy only on Tuesdays when their 50 percent discounts on well drinks and selected appetizers run all day.
Happy Hours are also scheduling much earlier, going from a pre-pandemic average of 7 to 10pm to specials that frequently end before sunset. “We close two hours earlier now” one server told me, “which means there’s not enough time between getting off work and 6 o’clock to get totally wasted for happy hour. That makes the roads around here a lot safer at night, but we’re pretty much emptied out after the dinner rush.”
As the pandemic drags on, bars and restaurants are trying to jury-rig a failing life support system, and happy hours are the least of their worries. More than one audio interviewee became annoyed with me for pestering them with apparent penny-pinching. One bartender complained the way someone usually does from the seated side of a bar rail, telling me “It’s bad enough that the governor keeps dangling my job in front of me like a yoyo, but I actually voted for the guy.”
Bootlegger in East Village, offers one day for happy hour food ($10 build-your-own-nachos and beer all day Tuesday) and a weekend bottomless mimosa special ($25 per person)
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
I never could have imagined myself saying “I’m sorry” to so many people, so many times, over such a short space of time. During a previous happy hour purge, someone answering the phone at one bar flat out told me to “knock that shit off, nobody’s happy for a whole hour anymore.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 600,000 working U.S. bartenders were on the payroll at the beginning of 2020. Until recently, tending or owning a bar, with or without food service, must have seemed like one of the greatest jobs ever. A party every day, eternally in demand, a gig as everlasting as one of Wonka’s Gobstoppers. The world will always need someone to pour it a stiff drink, right?
Look what happened when they tried to wean America off the barley teat with Prohibition, when getting busted with a bottle of giggle juice was no laughing matter and could land you in prison. Not only did that not stop people from drinking, but a whole new underground subculture was created of liquored up lawbreakers.
Kind of like Covid Cocktail Parties. Oh sure, nobody calls them that. But when you see online posts or receive private messages with coded how-to-attend invitations to a formerly public venue, now privately hosting a “membership only” drink-a-thon replete with happy hour specials and live music, I know it makes me feel like ordering a month’s worth of groceries, locking the door, and filling the bathtub with hand sanitizer.
I found a married couple willing to tell me about attending a private party at a North County bar that threw up so much subterfuge to deter all but the chosen that crime scene caution tape was used to block off both entrances visible from the street. The only way to secretly gain admittance was through the (closed) restaurant in an adjoining building, where one had to present a valid ID, a confirmed password, and 50 bucks non-refundable cash. That earned customers the right to saddle up to a bar full of disease vector daredevils doing approximately the same thing in the same bar that, back in February, wasn’t even asking a cover charge on live music nights.
“It’s impossible to keep anything a secret nowadays with social media,” says husband “Jack,” “so there were people trying to get in all night. They had it peaked out at 50 people [the venue capacity is over 200] but there wasn’t anything like spaces roped off between chairs and tables, and almost nobody was wearing a mask other than whoever worked there.”
Were all the employees wearing masks? “I think so, the bartenders definitely were, and all the bouncers had on hospital gloves.” I asked if that meant bouncers were daring to touch patrons, patting them down. “No, not at all, I think the gloves were because they were handling the cash too. I didn’t see anybody get searched or bounced.”
According to his wife “Jill,” “I saw a few people putting on masks and then taking them off or pulling them down to talk and drink, at least early on. I’d say, by ten o’clock, the only people still wearing masks were the bartenders and security. It’s hard to fight peer pressure.”
When it comes to employees wearing masks, management doesn’t always provide a clear and guiding light. “Our staff all wears masks at all times,” one phone respondent told me at the end of a long list of on-site happy hour safety protocols, adding, “Even though one of the owners believes that masks scare off the customers.”
I keep thinking about that, and wondering what it’s like, to have your livelihood depend on such a microcosm of 2020 America. One leader all-in for masks, the other with less faith in science than in luck, or maybe divine intervention. Who and what are you gonna believe? And what are you gonna do if you stop believing?
One longtime bartender friend of mine is so fed up with the ever-changing Covid restrictions that he’s ready find another line of work. He says he’s lost count of how many customers have fought with him over masks or requests to physically distance. As for me, I lost track of how many people told me about angry bar patrons threatening to spit on them.
Of course, any job requiring contact with the public carries a high risk for infection. That probably explains the rising popularity of local-centric happy hours on Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangout.
Splash Wine Lounge & Bistro regularly has a virtual Play ‘N’ Sip wine lounge where you can pick up your drink flights and bingo grids ahead of time, and then enjoy your happy hour from home with an online group of likeminded wine loving players. Wine Not, Wine Now offers online and in-home wine tasting via their Traveling Vineyard website, courtesy of a growing army of independent party hosts.
Local nonprofit Serving Seniors hosts a frequent Sips For Seniors virtual happy hour, a recurring online fundraising event which trades delivery and pickup cocktails for donations that support low-income and homeless seniors. Women in Bio (“Promoting diversity and inclusion for women in the life sciences”) mounts Virtual Sip and Paint Nights on Zoom, during which local artist instructors help these science ladies with a painting project paired with a drink selection.
Others are moving into alternate media rather than depending on happy hours to attract business. "As a restaurant owner, I have to look at it all with a sense of levity, irony and ennui," says Malicia Love at Vista's Partake Gastropub. "I do know that there is more at stake than money. I try to be creative and cope. I miss the music. I project movies on my wall as an impromptu drive-in. I will continue doing so with out dining services like I did for the first shutdown. I do it for my own sense of sanity and sharing art with those feeling isolated."
Partake has been screening old silent comedies, cartoons, and "irreverent Monty Python stuff on Tuesdays. I thought it funny how the random music went with this Popeye cartoon we played last Tuesday."
Knotty Barrel downtown is one of the few bars whose discount specials have remained mostly unchanged for over a year, with $2 off craft beer and $6 wells and wines running Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 pm. At Ambrogio15 in Pacific Beach, the longtime weekday wine specials are matched to a selection of appetizers at a $19 per-person price from 3 until 5 pm.
Other venues have maintained happy hour specials on the same days as previously, but with heavily reduced windows of opportunity that make the term “happy hour” more literal than usual.
Mavericks Beach Club in PB is discounting drinks from 5 until 6 pm, and only on weekday afternoons, but with a generous variety of reduced price items such as $4 beer, wine, and wells; and $6 margaritas and mai tais.
Hooleys offers a Friday food special, but the only liquor discounts are on slow Sunday mornings with $4 Bloody Marys and $5 Champagne. Ditto for Bootlegger in East Village: one day for happy hour food ($10 build-your-own-nachos and beer all day Tuesday) and a weekend bottomless mimosa special ($25 per person).
You can find two hours’ worth of weekday afternoon drink specials at most Cheesecake Factories ($3.95-$4.95 select beer bottles and drafts), as well as in Pacific Beach at Latitude 32 ($3-$5.50 wine and beers), Point Loma’s The Wine Pub ($5 craft drafts and select wines), Vintana in Escondido ($8 martinis), and in Mission Valley with McGregor’s Grill & Ale House ($1 off beer and wines, $5 off half-gallon pitchers), all running from 4 until 6 pm. North Park’s Redwing Bar & Grill hosts a 3 to 6 pm happy hour Wednesday through Friday, with $4.50 Tall Boys and another slightly different special each afternoon, mostly favoring domestic beers.
The majority of San Diego’s other still-extant drink specials run three to four hours, with a handful offered all day. For example, the noon until 6 pm selections at King and Queen Cantina in Little Italy with $1 off drafts, $4 beer bottles, and $7 wells and wines. The weekend discounts run from noon until 8 pm at downtown’s Tipsy Crow, where prices vary on individual drink exchanges.
A (very) few venues are offering live music again, albeit on a limited basis. Arrowood Golf Course in Oceanside has been hosting an occasional happy hour with Cowboy Jack Johnson, aka the Singing Cowboy of Rawhide Ranch, with rotating drink specials averaging a buck off. El Cajon’s Bull & Bourbon has a live acoustic music happy hour on Friday and Saturday nights, but the only discounts are Wednesday’s $29.99 surf & turf special.
Panama 66 is also unsure of upcoming happy hour plans; their Gilbert Castellanos Supper Club Jazz shows will continue with outdoor performances, but they currently don’t handle cash, only credit cards and virtual payments, in order to lessen the risk of virus exposure.
One bar I called is hosting a live music happy hour, though with the caveat that “Wearing masks is optional in the bar area, but mandatory in the piano lounge.”
When I asked why, I was told, “Because the piano player doesn’t want to die.”
Back at the beginning of 2020, San Diegans had no idea that it was the golden age of happy hours, a sangria shang-ri-la. In a city famed for craft beer and custom cocktails, everything from the barstool looked rosy. One hopes the local bar scene will someday at least resemble the way it was. This may be many somedays away, but bars will eventually need to lure back their old clientele.
And don’t forget, nearly a year’s worth of Americans have reached legal drinking age during the pandemic. After all, nothing really goes away forever until its forgotten. And though we’re in danger of forgetting what it’s like to be happy, we won’t forget happy hours